My Favorite Advice, Part 1

NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com

The Real GigThis week I thought I would compile a few of my favorite pieces of advice. Some of these I read and some I was told directly. But I think of them all regularly. As some point down the line, I may do a part 2 as more come to mind. I use these as they relate to music, of course. But most of them apply to any situation.

People are neither good nor bad, just smart or stupid”
…Russell Simmons

From the cofounder of Def Jam. Good one. We’ve all been on both sides of this. A manager friend of mine once said, “I wish for once someone would tell me I was right when it mattered whether I was right or wrong.”…..i.e. Not years later when the band is opening for a puppet show at some county fair.

“Youth is wasted on the young”, “Hindsight is 20/20”, “Don’t cast pearls at the feet of swine”. There are lots of corollaries to this rule.

Now, I don’t profess to know everything about the music business OR being a musician. Not by a long shot. But I’ll admit whenever I get frustrated with a “know it all” artist I’m working with I just picture them 4 years down the road singing the chorus of “Brown Eyed Girl” with a bunch of puppets on a flatbed.

And I feel much better.

The poor blacks hate the poor whites. But at the end of the day they are both f***ing poor”
…Anonymous

I heard this one from an old booking agent. I’ll keep his identity secret due to the sensitive nature of the comment. It goes without saying, but this is in no way meant to be a racist comment or an insult to the unfortunate. The point is to look at the big picture.

Musicians and bands are a feudin’ bunch of idiots who can never get along. But sometimes, while the guitarist and singer are arguing whether it’s the pick slide/dive bomb or that bitchin’ cookie monster scream that deserves the most writer credit on their new original song, they need to be reminded that they have been playing the same bowling alley for 3 years.

And that dude that freaks out when the singer puts his foot on the monitor during the chorus of “Dr. Feelgood” probably isn’t a record executive.

There are greater enemies out there than each other.

If you don’t straighten up, they are going to take us both to the hospital. To get my foot out of your ass”
…My Father

My dad said this to me, like, every day until I was about 32. A simple, powerful lesson in accountability. Fear can be a great motivator to do the right thing. Growing up, I never actually saw Fonzie hit anyone. And I never tested my dad on his threat. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.

Never trust the opinion of anyone who gets their music for free”
…Larry Mazer

Larry co-managed our band for several years. He also managed KISS, Cinderella, Cheap Trick, Breaking Benjamin, and Pat Benatar to name a few. So I think he knew a thing or two about the music biz. He had several other nuggets that I can’t repeat here. But I like this one.

I first heard this in the late ‘90s. Today everyone gets their music for free. So I think this one needs to be rephrased for modern times. I would update it as “Never trust the opinion of anyone who listens to your music because they have to”…i.e. critics, reviewers, etc.

It is best to pay attention to the opinions of people who can’t wait for your new record to come out instead of some hipster reviewer who is too cool to even breathe the same air as you.

David Lee Roth was once asked how he felt about the lousy reviews that Van Halen always received. He said, “These idiots only like Elvis Costello because they all look like Elvis Costello.” I like Elvis Costello AND Van Halen. But Diamond Dave could sure be a funny guy.

99% of everything is shit”
…Bruce Dickinson

Our band once had the good fortune to have a BBQ lunch with the Iron Maiden frontman. At Sound City, no less. How cool is that? Smart guy.

I loved this advice he gave that day. 99% of everything out there, including your own stuff, is garbage. That’s just the way it is. It takes the pressure off really.

You probably only hit it out of the park 1% of the time. So, the best way to write a great song is to get busy writing shitty ones. The A list material lies under the B list. The key to succeeding more at songwriting(or anything) is to increase your rate of failure. Ask Thomas Edison.

If it don’t feel right, it ain’t right”
…Quincy Jones

I think about this one all the time when I’m recording. If I have to talk myself into liking something I’m working on, it probably just sucks. It is best to stop right there and try something else. That gut feeling is almost always right.

There is another saying: “Advice is what you ask for when you know the answer but wished you didn’t”. Same principle. Very simple idea, but it always tests you.

A writer doesn’t sell out because someone gives him a big check. The only way to sell out is to shadowbox”
…Thomas Wolfe

I’m paraphrasing this one. This is a quote from one of my favorite novels, You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe. Among musicians it is a popular belief that if something is incredibly successful it must be garbage. Or if it is direct then it must be contrived. I disagree. I think it takes a certain amount of courage to write a good, simple pop song. Or a pretty ballad.

You have to get over yourself. The key is doing something that connects. And that is harder than it looks….or sounds.

Paul Westerberg was in The Replacements AND he writes great ballads. Tom Waits is a brilliant sap when he wants to be. Bob Dylan wrote “Desolation Row” AND “To Make You Feel My Love”.

Here’s a couple of examples of how to REALLY sell out:

  1. Make a weird 2nd record to silence your critics. This is the very definition of “sophomore slump”. Looking out instead of in.
  2. Take you pretty McCartney-esque ballad and fill it up with weird electronic noises, banjos, and trombones so your “indy” friends won’t think it trite.
  3. Be incomprehensible……because it’s art, man.

So, that’s all for now folks.

So how do you sum this all up?

I’d say: “To thine ownself be true. But remember 99% of the time we all suck”.

~

Bret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees. His “Real Gig” blog runs each Friday.

The Real Gig, A Musician’s Guide to the Universe by Bret Alexander, March 15, 2013